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Book News: CIA Tried To Use 'Doctor Zhivago' To Weaken The USSR

A scene from the 1965 film <em>Doctor Zhivago, </em>based on Boris Pasternak's epic novel<em>.</em>
A scene from the 1965 film Doctor Zhivago, based on Boris Pasternak's epic novel.

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • Declassified documents show that the CIA used copies of Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak's epic novel spanning 20th century Russian history, as a tool to try to provoke dissent in the Soviet Union. The book was banned in the USSR. The CIA recognized the novel's "great propaganda value," according to a 1958 memo, and had the novel printed and disseminated. The agency called the book "a passive but piercing exposition of the effect of the Soviet system on the life of a sensitive intelligent citizen." The memo notes that the book is valuable "not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: we have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read." Careful not to show the "hand of the United States government," the CIA had two Russian-language editions printed and passed them to Soviet citizens abroad. The documents describing the program were requested by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée as a part of their research for The Zhivago Affair, a book coming out in June about the CIA's use of Doctor Zhivago.
  • Girl with a Pearl Earring author Tracy Chevalier will write a novel inspired by Shakespeare's Othello as a part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. So far, authors including Margaret Atwood, Howard Jacobson and Jeanette Winterson have signed on to write for the series, which will launch in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. In a press release, Chevalier wrote, "Othello is essentially about being an outsider and the price you pay for that difference. Most of the protagonists in my novels are outsiders, geographically or mentally, so writing Othello's story was an irresistible opportunity."
  • The Best Books Coming Out This Week:

  • Peter Matthiessen, the novelist, naturalist and co-founder of the Paris Review, died on Saturday, days before the publication of his final book. In Paradise, out Tuesday, tells the story of Polish-American Clements Olin, who returns to Poland to visit a former Nazi concentration camp. For Weekend Edition, Tom Vitale visited Matthiessen at his home on Long Island, N.Y., shortly before he died. Matthiessen told him, "Man has been a murderer forever, somebody says in the book. The number of people killed in the past century, human beings killing each other, is just phenomenal. How has civilization — so-called — come this far and people are still designing tools to kill each other with no other purpose than killing? Why are we doing it? Why are we doing it?"
  • Another final work, the poetry collection And Short the Season, comes after Maxine Kumin's death in February. The poems range from pastoral – bittersweet evocations of spring – to sociopolitical, about the time when she was "terrified of writing domestic poems, / poems pungent with motherhood," and "women poets were dismissed as immature,/ their poems pink with the glisten of female organs." In "Whereof the Gift Is Small," she writes:
  • "Wet feet, wet cuffs,

    little flecks of buttercup on my sneaker toes,

    bluets, violets crowding out the tufts

    of rich new grass the horses nose

    and nibble like sleepwalkers held fast—

    brittle beauty—might this be the last?"

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

    Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.

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